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Unraveling the Lost Inca Language of Knots

Inca Khipu on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) (photo by Lynn Dombrowski/Flickr)
Inca Khipu on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) (photo by Lynn Dombrowski/Flickr)

The ancient Inca had no known written language, but they may have used an intricate language of knots. Khipu, or quipu, taken from the Quechua word for “knot,” are collections of cotton or wool strings in varying colors with different knots held in horizontal rows; there are around 600 that survive from the 15th to 16th centuries. They’ve long been a mystery to researchers, who debated they were either a numerical form of record keeping, or something with deeper narrative meaning. Recent excavations at Incahuasi in Peru are slowly unwinding some of their enigmatic use.

Khipu illustration from 'The book, its history and development" (1907) (via Internet Archive)
Khipu illustration from ‘The Book, Its History and Development’ (1907) (via Internet Archive)

William Neuman reports on the importance of the new discovery for the New York Times:

At the site called Incahuasi, about 100 miles south of Lima, excavators have found, for the first time, several khipus in the place where they were used — in this case, a storage house for agricultural products where they appear to have been used as accounting books to record the amount of peanuts, chili peppers, beans, corn and other items that went in and out.

In some cases the khipus — the first ones were found at the site in 2013 — were buried under the remnants of centuries-old produce, which was preserved thanks to the extremely dry desert conditions.

Illustration of khiup from 'Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization' (1865) (via Internet Archive)
Illustration of khiup from ‘Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization’ (1865) (via Internet Archive) (click to enlarge)

Unfortunately, Neuman adds that the “excavations at Incahuasi have stopped because of a lack of financing.” Yet those already found could have a Rosetta Stone-like impact on khipu knowledge, linking context with the string artifacts for the first time.

Much of the research now on khipu is about finding connections between the rare examples. The Khipu Database Project, hosted by Harvard University, is analyzing these connections, looking at the different colors of string, types, and placements of knots. For example, the khipu discovered with the chili peppers may have some specific indicator that resembles others whose provenance was lost over the centuries since Spanish colonialism.

“Essentially, a database is necessary because there is so much variability in khipu construction and colors, and we think the ‘messages’ were encoded in patterns of these differences; thus, the database allows us to identify and study those patterns,” explained Gary Urton, chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Harvard and creator of the database, to Hyperallergic.

The significance of khipu, like so many Inca traditions, vanished during colonization, with those not in private collections or museums mostly unearthed from graves, disassociated from their original places of use. Now there’s the potential to disentangle this lost language of knots, and gain a perspective on precolonial life now absent from our history.

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